However you square it, younger voters were key to the electoral coalition that brought Joe Biden to power in the 2020 presidential election. According to a Pew Research study published in June, those under thirty broke for Biden by some twenty-four points (59 percent to only 35 percent for Donald Trump) while voters in the same age group who had not cast a ballot in the two preceding elections broke for him 59/33. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the overwhelming support of many millennials and Gen-Zers, Joe Biden probably could not have been elected president.
It’s particularly striking, then, to see Biden’s support among voters from both generations in total free fall less than a year after his swearing in.
Just how badly have Biden and his administration fallen out of favor with the young? While Biden’s approval ratings are down across all age groups from last January, recent findings by Economist data journalist G. Elliott Morris find that the president’s scores with those under thirty and ages thirty to forty-four have dropped in staggering fashion.
According to Morris’ analysis:
An average of 29% of American adults under the age of 30 approve of the job Mr Biden is doing as president. But that compares with 50% who disapprove. The net rating of -21 points is the worst for any age group. Adults aged between 30 and 44 give Mr Biden a -17 rating; those aged 45 to 64 come in at -5; and among adults aged 65 and over, the president is eight points underwater. This is a sharp reversal from the beginning of the year, when young voters gave Mr Biden a net approval rating 32 points higher than older people did.
When it comes to the causes of the decline, Morris is more speculative than definitive, pointing to several obvious areas where Biden promised big and hasn’t delivered. As polling evidence from YouGov has shown, young voters cite climate change and health care as their two biggest concerns — neither policy area currently appearing likely to see significant reform during Biden’s current term. Another obvious, though more recent, development is the administration’s waffling on extending student loan relief, though the administration did announce a ninety-day extension of the moratorium on student debt earlier today.
The president is rightly drawing the ire of many younger voters. “Whatever the explanation for Mr Biden’s sliding popularity with the young,” he concludes, “their support for him was much stronger when the alternative was Mr Trump.”
On this point, there is much that could be said. The Democratic Party has a demonstrated habit of taking its core constituencies for granted, and its strategists have long sought to leverage fear of the Republican Party as an electoral motivator more than they have the actual delivery of a promised legislative agenda. As the first year of Biden’s administration quite clearly shows, this approach quickly squandered much of the goodwill they enjoyed with younger voters following Donald Trump’s defeat — and they can expect to pay a heavy price in next year’s midterms as a result.
After a Bloody Mary or two, a more cynical Democratic strategist might insist, of course, that this trajectory actually validates their approach. Younger voters, after all, did turn up to help defeat Donald Trump and, even if they don’t show up in the same numbers in 2022, hatred of the next GOP presidential candidate (who might well turn out to be Trump himself) will be motivation enough to vote Blue regardless of what the Democrats do or don’t do while in office.
This would be a terrible line of reasoning under any circumstances. But recent history shows that fear of the Republican Party alone does not, in fact, motivate voters — particularly young and politically conscious ones — to come out for the Democrats in perpetuity even when they don’t deliver on a promised agenda. Barack Obama won record support from young people in the primary and general elections of 2008, only to see his party lose ground with them in 2012 and (more importantly) in 2016. In 2008, some 45 percent of young voters identified as Democrats — a share that had fallen to 37 percent by 2016.
The bottom line is that Biden and the Democrats are already paying a heavy price for their failure to deliver on key campaign promises, with every age group but most dramatically with the young. Given the administration’s first year, it’s an entirely predictable development — and one that will only intensify if it continues to spurn progressively minded young voters and take them for granted.